The Romans carved their letters in stone but Andrew van der Merwe, a South African calligrapher, carves his in sand.
He calls it beach calligraphy, and it’s a whole new art form he is introducing to the world. Van der Merwe is a freelance calligrapher and letter artist in Cape Town. What sets him apart from other calligraphers is the technique he developed for carving letters in the sand. On Instagram, he is known as the Beachscriber.
He describes the ability to swiftly carve through the sand as something that can be deceptive, adding to beach calligraphy’s poetic quality.
“It is beautiful to watch because it is a skilled performance. It’s like watching a dancer and can be quite a rich experience to watch.” Performing the art where he is exposed to external factors such as the wind, sun, and ever-changing tides, Van der Merwe is aware of the element of unpredictability. But he has taught himself to understand the changing of the tides to benefit his art.
“It’s a dance between what I know, what I have a handle on, what I can do and what nature does,” he says, adding, “there’s that divine touch that gets added to everything” when tidal water fills the carvings and the sun lights them up.
“I look at where the sun is so that I can optimise the writing for shadow, as there is a difference between carving into the sun and carving across the sun,” says Van der Merwe.
His career as a professional calligrapher was the outflow of circumstances stemming from his childhood, encounters with the apartheid police, and ending up on the streets, to when he was asked to write the Freedom of the City of Cape Town scroll presented to then-president Nelson Mandela.
Van der Merwe grew up in, among other places, Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape. Spending much of his childhood on the beach he discovered that when you hold a stick the right way, or just scratch the sand with it, it makes an interesting mark.
“That’s how it began for me. I made marks in the sand and ended up shaping sticks to interesting points. And that stuck with me through my childhood during which I kind of became interested in letters.”
He remembers that the old hymn books in the church he attended as a child had interesting Gothic letters. “I started to copy those. I knew nothing about calligraphy but I started copying those letters.”
A wake-up call
After school he completed his compulsory military service, which he describes as a “wake-up call” for him about the injustice of the apartheid system. He then enrolled at the University of Cape Town to study philosophy, politics, and anthropology. He laughingly recalls the day he walked onto UCT, “barefoot and wearing army PT shorts, a T-shirt and sporting my corporal moustache.” Six months before completing his degree, his funds dried up and he could not study any further.
Van der Merwe ended up working for a nonprofit organisation, Cross Times. “It published anti-apartheid information and commentary, and getting people involved in peacemaking processes and negotiations, trying to wake the white population up.” The organisation closed when it ran into funding difficulties and trouble with the security police.
“I found myself without work and that’s when I started freelancing as a calligrapher. All that time, I’d kept up my interest in calligraphy and lettering in the background. At UCT I’d met the Cape Friends of Calligraphy society who introduced me to their library. I’m very much self-taught, so the library was a big resource for me,” he says.
Van der Merwe started doing odd freelance jobs such as writing names on envelopes for wedding invitations and designing invitations and logos.
In 1997, his talent caught the eye of someone entrusted to find a calligrapher to write the Freedom of the City of Cape Town scroll that was later presented to Mandela.
“I think that pretty much sealed my fate as a calligrapher because, at that stage, I was still dabbling in other art forms and still harboured ambitions for an academic career. Philosophy is still my first love, but getting that very significant, very important job sent me much more strongly in the calligraphy direction”.
The perfect V cut
While Van der Merwe was freelancing he continued doing calligraphy in the sand.
He designed his own tools to fit his requirements. One day he was playing with a stick with a piece of flattened wire at the end, shaped to produce attractive letter forms.
“It sort of cuts through the sand and rucks it up. But I discovered that if I pulled it through the sand quickly enough it whipped the sand out and it left something that really struck me — it left a V cut in the sand”.
At the time Van der Merwe was studying calligraphy in the library. He was introduced to the very distinctive V cut in European calligraphy carved in stone. To see the V cut in the sand left him very pleased.
“It was quite profound. It had that same look about it, but in the sand. It got washed away by the next wave. So the one is a carving in stone, which carries with it that sense of permanence, of the thousands of years of a human mark. But there [in the sand] it was now transposed into a context where it was completely ephemeral. It was quite beautiful actually.”
Discovering this V cut placed him on the radar of the Belgian stone carver Maud Bekaert. When she visited South Africa in 2008 “the alphabetic nature of the V letter cut in sand was not lost on her. So she looked me up when she came to Cape Town. And it wasn’t long before she was cooking on all sorts of ideas,” says Van der Merwe.
These ideas led to Van der Merwe travelling to Belgium to be part of a larger charity event, which raised funds for orphanages in South Africa.
He was tasked with beach calligraphy, but did much more. He ended up delivering an unprepared speech in front of the mayor and other Belgian dignitaries and even accidentally threw sand on the mayor’s shoe as he carved his art on the natural canvas. Nevertheless, the event raised R700 000 for orphanages.
Van der Merwe’s method of teaching calligraphy took him to the United States in 2019.
“I have a unique approach to calligraphy, which I think comes partly out of the fact that I’m self-taught. I grew up in South Africa. I invent things for myself. My method of teaching calligraphy or understanding calligraphy to some extent runs counter to how calligraphy has been taught for hundreds of years.”
Ever since the Renaissance, calligraphy has been taught from a geometrical point of view. Letters are deconstructed and understood in terms of geometry.
But Van der Merwe teaches that calligraphy is primarily movement.
“I think it should always be understood as movement and how the movement produces the forms. And there’s a synergy between that and the beach calligraphy. Because you cannot do beach calligraphy the way you carve in stone. You have to do it quickly.”
He still remembers how he first played on the beach, making marks with objects he found on the sand. Today he still uses kelp polyps and mussel shells to write.
“All of them, if you just observe how the sand can respond to them, you can really get beauty coming out of it. It’s a bit like people, isn’t it? How you interact with people can bring the best out of them, or the worst. You can win them over and work with them. I’m not very good at that. But I am good with the sand.”